In the Huddle
I have been asked many times how I came upon my coaching philosophy. I’m know as a ‘players’ coach and if the reaction I have gotten over the years from ex players is relevant, I am just that. Let me tell you, by way of a true story, why I coach like I do.
I can remember as a youngster shooting baskets in the driveway until way past dark. The dull glow of the one light bulb giving off just enough light so I could see the basket. When it got too inclement outside I rigged up a tiny basket made of an old coffee can and shot a small Nerf ball for hours in my bedroom. During the spring I would throw baseballs against the cement foundation of our house until I had worn out the baseball. I whiled away hours hitting rocks from our driveway into the trees of the vacant lot next door. Throwing footballs through an inner tube was never very appealing to me but I would spend hours kicking over a makeshift crossbar I had built between two fir trees in the back yard. Our collie dog, King, was my “shagger”. He would chase the ball as it carried over the crossbar and his big mouth was just large enough to hold on to the football, as he would bring it back for me to kick again. King and I spent many enjoyable hours together playing kick ball.
I even built a dirt putting green in an empty lot behind the house and, using plastic golf balls and eighteen different tee areas from around the neighborhood, would hack away with one club, often spending hours imagining myself as Dr. Cary Middlecoff or Ben Hogan. I would play round after round until I got tired of replacing the divots in the front yard, which was the landing area for all the tee shots.
I was always able to get along alone. I didn’t need anybody to play with. Give me a ball or a bat and my imagination would do the rest. I was simple totally comfortable by myself.
As I grew older I became involved in organized sports and still loved to play. I was a good player and that helped once the organized teams began. My favorite was basketball and I liked baseball and golf too. We didn’t have year around sports in those years so I was free to play unsupervised and was able to use my imagination to create new games and to perfect something I had seen on television.
I spent many hours drawing plays and studying football. Although I enjoyed playing basketball more, I always knew it was football that I wanted to coach. Basketball was too fast and too unpredictable for me. Football was more like a chess game and it was possible to analyze at a slower pace. I enjoyed the challenge of countering the opponents’ moves and even would try to anticipate what play Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas might call on television during a given situation. As I got older I found myself more and more in tune with their calls and would often astound my friends by calling the play before it would enfold on the TV screen. In those days we would see either the Packers or the Colts every Sunday and I never missed a game.
My senior year of high school passed quickly and although I was a pretty fair athlete, no one recruited me. I decided to enroll at the University of Oregon and, at the last-minute, try out for the frosh football team. The team was coached by Brad Eklund, who later coached in the pros with the early Dallas Cowboys and by a young man just graduated from the University of Oregon by the name of John Robinson. You may have heard of him. Of course, John has gone on too much success in football at USC and the Los Angeles Rams, but then he was really green and stuttered so bad when he got excited, which was quite often, that he could hardly talk. John was totally positive and fun to play for. I liked him and although my career at Oregon was to be a disaster I always thought he treated me fairly. He seemed to be concerned for the players, and I was to learn, in my experience, this was a rare quality for a college coach to have.
I had really loved high school. It was a time of little responsibility and all my coaches cared for me. College quickly became a nightmare. After frosh football ended I went out for the basketball squad. This was my best sport and I was looking forward to playing. In those days the frosh had teams of their own and freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity. I came out late because of football and never found a place on the squad. It was so different from what I was used to. The frosh basketball squad had been practicing a long time and the team was pretty well set, I became a bench sitter for the first time in my athletic career. It was a traumatic experience and I didn’t handle it very well. I found myself hating a sport for the first time in my life. It was to get much worse.
In the spring I was playing frosh baseball where I was the starting first basemen when spring football practice started. I didn’t want to quit playing baseball, I was having some success again, but I had received a spring term football tuition scholarship and was forced to drop baseball. I was to find out later the scholarship was a product of my father’s badgering the football coaches, because I had played first string on the frosh team and had beaten out a full scholarship player. It was only ninety dollars but because of it I was required to take part in spring practice.
Ironically I had evaluated my situation and decided that although I loved football and planned to coach it, I was not good enough to make it as a player at the division one university level. I really didn’t want to play that spring but was forced to do so because of my partial scholarship. Spring football soon became the darkest period of my life.
I was listed as the sixth quarterback on the spring depth chart and it was a good evaluation of my ability. Unfortunately, what the sixth string quarterback did was run drills for the first string defense most of the time. In those days if you weren’t a starter or a prominent reserve it wasn’t much fun. Rarely a word of encouragement, only harassment for two hours each day. As bad as my role in practice was it was better than how the coaches were treating me. I didn’t know of my father’s interference and I couldn’t understand why they all seemed to take delight in being so mean to me. Even coach Robinson seemed to ignore me.
I can remember, like it was yesterday, lying in a heap on the practice field. I had heard the snap of my ankle as it was twisted under me during a tackling drill and knew something awful was wrong. I wondered why the trainer, who was standing not ten yards away, wasn’t helping me and why the head coach was ignoring me as I lay writhing in pain? Finally, unable to move, some of my teammates picked me up and literally carried me out of harms way as the drill continued. Finally, the head athletic trainer, “Two-Gun”, as he was known, walked slowly over to me and uttered these exact words, “You’re not doing us any good down here, go on up to the locker room.” The locker room was in McArthur court about five hundred yards away. The cold spring rain was coming down sideways in the strong wind and I remember wiping the tears from my face feeling like the loneliest of warrior’s as I nearly crawled through the rain, up the hill to the locker room. What had I done to deserve this kind of treatment? It was a nightmare that I will never forget. In those long gone days most coaches didn’t worry much when the sixth string quarterback got hurt and I had obviously managed to somehow piss off enough people in the program to receive treatment not acceptable to a stray dog, but times were different back then.
Although Coach Casanova had been standing next to “Two Gun” while overseeing the practice drill, when he happened upon me the next day limping into the training room he asked curtly, “What’s wrong with you?” His tone of voice was such that I knew he must have hated me very much. He had to have known exactly where and when I had been injured. I mumbled that I had hurt my ankle, he grunted something about me being on thin ice around here and continued on his way to much more important matters.
The training staff taped my injured ankle and without a hint of compassion told me to play on it, even though I could barely hobble out to the practice field. I was staggering through an option drill when Jerry Frei, the only coach who showed me any sense of understanding or compassion, asked me what I was doing in uniform? I had no answer and he mercifully told me to stay out of the drill and to not dress until I could run well enough to keep from further injuring myself. I will be forever grateful to coach Frei.
I thought it ironic as I watched practice on crutches the following Saturday when the scrimmage was brought to an early halt because a first string all-coast offensive guard from Astoria by the name of Dave Urell injured his ankle.
Before the Saturday scrimmage began I bumped into one of my former high school teammates, Mike Kelly, a big and fast fullback, who was being recruited, Lake Oswego coach Vince Dulcich and head coach Len Casanova in the hall leading to the practice field. No letter of intent was signed in those days so high school seniors were still being talked to in the spring. I thought it very ironic that in the presence of my high school coach, and a prized recruit, Coach Casanova, who had never spoken a civil word to me, was suddenly all concerned. “How’s the ankle”, he asked? “Get that thing healed, we really need you out there”. Even though totally flabbergasted at his feigned interest I somehow muttered a satisfactory response. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so phony and two-faced. I stood in the hallway for a long time knowing the one person who had been more cold and cruel toward me than anyone in my entire life had just made my high school coach think he was one great guy
I was a totally confused boy. I was taking a physical pounding each day and I was battered and bruised, but more important, I was mentally and emotionally crushed. Sports had always been so much fun and now my dream was being shattered. I would limp home after practice to the cold dormitory and sit on my bed and cry. I was totally alone and it seemed there was no place to turn. I wanted to quit so bad it hurt and all I really wanted was to go home where it was safe. But I was always taught that you never quit, so each day I would reluctantly head back to McArthur Court to dress for another day of humiliation and take my medicine. I had often heard people say that football would make a man out of you, but it came real close to killing me.
Coach Cas,’ as he was known to most of his players, had a reputation as “A builder of Men” and I’m sure for many that was true. For me however nothing could have been further from the truth. Looking back I’m sure he felt like I had earned my treatment and he may well have been right. But, regardless of blame it was the darkest period of my playing life. The good news is I can say with all honesty when I left the U. of Oregon I pledged to treat all my players with love and respect. I believe in my heart I have done just that.
Truthfully, I hold little animosity towards the Oregon football staff for the treatment I received, it was a different world back then, but I knew once I began my coaching career the position a player held on my team would NEVER influence how he was treated. The pain is the same for the sixth string player as it is for the all-star. I will never forget that lesson.
I’ve often told friends that coaching is much more than teaching kids how to block, tackle, throw, catch and run. And it isn’t time spent in an office or a big playbook. It’s all about relationships and how to get your players to play at their best level. You do that with positive motivation and the earning of mutual respect. I once had the head coach at one of our two major universities tell me, “You do us a disservice by treating your players too nice, they have a hard time adjusting to college coaching.” He wasn’t kidding. My answer went something like this, “Sorry coach if you want me to be as big an asshole as you are you’ll have a long time to wait.” I wasn’t kidding either.
A large part of my obligation is to teach life skills through the game of football. The self-discipline, teamwork, loyalty and other lessons learned on the field of play actually work equally well in our world. I have had one simple goal my entire career, it should tell you volumes about my coaching philosophy. I want my players, after practice or after the season or after their career is over to be able to look me in the eye and say, “Coach that was fun, I’d do it again in a minute.”